Teaching Opinion

Paul Horton: Troubles Ahead for Gatopia?

By Anthony Cody — July 26, 2013 12 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

Have you ever read Dr. Seuss’, The Butter-Battle Book? It made perfect sense to me, a Cold War military brat. The “boys in the backroom” were very smart. They were data whizzes and they invented computers that made them a lot smarter than everybody else. Both the “Yooks” and the “Zooks” believed that those “boys in the back room” could figure out solutions to every problem. But the biggest problem was that only human beings who could effectively communicate, not computers or data, could solve the world’s problems. “The boys in the backroom” were only doing what they were told: they were the smartest, but not the best communicators in town. None of those “boys” said, “making more weapons that can kill more people might not be the best way to go.” But everybody believed in them, almost religiously, to the brink of nuclear war. Slim Pickins didn’t bat an eye when he decided to ride his big A-bomb to victory.

This might seem strange to you, but, from my very humble perspective, we might need another Dr. Seuss to write a book with a similar theme, but in a different setting. The question has become, what happens when the “boys in the backroom” take over after the “Yooks” and the “Zooks” have stopped threatening each other? What happens when one of the “boys in the backroom” becomes the richest guy in the world and decides that he wants to build “Gatopia”? What happens if he convinces many of the other richest guys that our country is doomed unless we completely tear down and rebuild the way that we teach our kids? And what happens when he and many of his very wealthy friends tell the red and blue politicians that he and his friends can make sure that they will not get campaign funding if they don’t support “Gatopia”?

The problem with “Gatopia” is that the new domestic cold war that pits public and private education against each other seeks to turn human beings into computers that are efficient and well behaved. Most importantly, computers do not ask questions or demand accountability: they do what they are told.

Science Fiction? Dystopia? Conspiracy theory? Or, maybe a mix of all-of-the-above with a heavy dose of reality? Canadian Educator Philip McRae might be on to something very important in an article called “Rebirth of the Teaching Machine Through the Seduction of Data Analysis.” McRae calls our attention to the idea of the teaching machine that “captured the imagination” of many educational theorists in the late nineteenth century. It is déjà vu all over again today from his perspective, as many education companies including Microsoft, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Federal Department of Education are laser focused on the myriad ways that they envision computers being used. According to McRae, “a new generation of technology platforms promise to deliver ‘personalized learning’ for each and every student.

This rebirth of the teaching machine centers around digital software tutors (known as adaptive learning systems) and their grand claims to individualize learning by controlling the pace, place and content for each and every student...."Sounds exciting! Like something from “The Jetsons?” It gets better:

Personalized choice, with centralized control, in an increasingly data-driven, standardized and mechanized learning system, has long been a fantasy for many technocrats desperately wanting to (re)shape K-12 teaching and learning with technology. In this alternate reality, class sizes no longer matter and new staffing patterns emerge. The amount of time students spend in schools become irrelevant as brick and mortar structures fade away.

Of course, progressive educators like McRae have a few problems with this idea,

Adaptive learning systems (the new teaching machines) do not build more resilient, creative, entrepreneurial or empathetic citizens through their individualized, linear, and mechanical software algorithms. Nor do they balance the desire for greater choice...with the equity needed for a society to flourish. Computer adaptive learning systems are reductionist and primarily attend to those things that can be reality digitalized and tested (math, science, reading). They fail to recognize that high quality learning environments are deeply relational, humanistic, creative, socially constructed, active, and inquiry oriented


Didn’t the “boys in the backroom” have some issues with these qualities? But they do seem to be in charge now.

The obsession about measurement, quantification, and data is foundational to Western civilization. Historian Alfred Crosby even goes as far as to say that it was not science and technology that gave the west a big advantage, but refinement of the ability to map, measure, and account (The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society). In the mid and late 17th centuries the empirical truth of mathematical knowledge evolved into “scientism” when it made claims that could be predicted even though Newton and Descartes believed that they were confirming the existence of divinity. Historian of Science Stephen Toulmin puts it this way, “the Cartesian program for philosophy swept aside the ‘reasonable’ uncertainties of 16th century skeptics, in favor of new mathematical kinds of ‘rational’ certainty and proof....For the first time since Aristotle, logical analysis was separated from, and elevated far above, the study of rhetoric, discourse and argumentation (Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, 75).

Despite the best efforts of the Romantics, German idealists, Thomas Carlyle in Britain, and the American Transcendentalists who argued for the importance of intuitive ways of knowing and experiencing, the statisticians really gained influence among politicians when mechanization began to “take command” and European empires began to extend themselves in the 1830s. Statisticians became very important to the construction of imperial nationalisms when censuses were taken to measure the assets and tax potential of native populations (Andersen, Imagined Communities). And as Dickens noticed, statistics were used in England as a way to standardize the English educational system. In a brilliant piece published in Critical Inquiry (Winter 1993), “Figures of Arithmetic, Figures of Speech: The Discourse of Statistics in the 1830’s,” Mary Poovey argued that statistics were framed to create an intentional discourse for a particular purpose that could be used by political officials to fulfill a preconceived objective. Statistics, in Poovey’s analysis, were developed by industrialists and politicians to streamline manufacturing and to nationalize England’s schools (my italics).

Utopians in the 1830s and 1840s loved statistics and loved to use scientist rhetoric to attract potential interest and investment to their schemes. Utopian communities were to function as well as oiled machines that were designed by those who had been very rationally, but divinely, inspired. Robert Owen’s New Lanark was modeled on an industrial community, Fourier’s Phalanx was intricately designed, and Saint-Simon’s protégé, August Comte pretty much invented positive science, otherwise known as social science that would later ossify into “positivism": the belief that reality was only what could be seen, measured, and predicted. But the peculiar characteristic of both European and American Utopias in the nineteenth century, according to Howard P. Segal (Technological Utopianism in American Culture) was that they attempted to preserve the idea of organic spirituality within individuals as the glue that would hold the community together.

But what Alan Trachtenberg calls the Incorporation of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed every aspect of American culture. The creative destruction of the expanding corporate marketplace caused depressions and recessions that went deeper and lasted longer. In the wake of the depression of the mid 1890s, professional managers and engineers ascended to leadership positions in business, schools, and government. Their mantra was streamlining in an effort to cut waste, predict costs, increase profits, and end corruption. As Robert Crunden observed, many of the most important Progressives were the sons of Protestant ministers. They fully embraced scientism in all of its forms: data collection, statistical analysis, machines, assembly lines, accountability, and rigid management structures. Many were zealots, but no one proved to be more religious about pursuing his vision then Frederick Winslow Taylor, the genius of scientific management.

Taylor’s time and motion studies attracted the interest of Henry Ford, Joseph Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler, countless industrialists, and, believe it or not, hundreds of school boards across the United States. Raymond E. Callahan’s, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1964), all but predicts our current corporate education reform movement. Indeed, Bill Gates and Arne Duncan might become more articulate about what they seek for American schools by reading this book. Business leaders became very interested in school reform during the Progressive period. Schools were wasting a lot of money and the results were dismal. Millions of “new immigrants” were not learning English quickly enough, and too many were dropping out of school. The schools were failing to produce 20th century workers. When many of these immigrants did not test well on the first intelligence tests following their enlistment for WWI, there was a new push to “Americanize” the “unmeltable ethnics” and to restrict immigration. Far too many of these immigrants were schooled in political traditions that fueled labor activism and strikes. There was a push for immigration restriction and “100 percent” “Americanism.” The KKK became a very popular, very public, and very national organization.

In contrast to those like John Dewey who would call for the nurturing of an organic sense of community based on the experimentation and inquiry in small classrooms, the corporate managers and engineers who were being hired by school boards across the country called for efficiency, formality, well defined teacher assessments, standardized curricula, and standardized tests. They sought to cut the costs of education to keep public investment down so that capital could be used to fuel industrial growth. An article published in School Review in 1923 that mirrors their thinking called for larger classes, more “machinery for instruction,” assistance from “standardizing agencies” to convince teachers and the public that larger class sizes could be effective, that the “teaching load be adjusted” on a “scientific basis,” and that “Promotions and financial rewards should be graded in accordance with the size and the importance of the load carried.” (quoted in, Callahan 235) This is the context for the interest in the teaching machine that McRae chronicles.

Of course, we now know what happened to much of the capital that was saved by streamlining education in the 1920s. My friend at HP tells me that there is a lot of money being invested now in self-sustaining data centers that record and store transactions that are fitted for cargo containers to be floated on international waters. We are not talking about the Caymans or the Isle of Man. My guess is that this data has nothing to do with schools.

This is a very disconcerting history to me, a rebellious nerd of a sort who does not admire “Gatopia.” One of millions of teachers who gets excited about creativity and seeing kids grow. We like to read Rousseau’s Emile over and over again. Computers did not turn me on as a student, so I don’t get it.

During my first year in college I vaguely remember having taken a self-paced Introduction to Psychology course. The idea for the course was simple: read a chapter in the text, then go to Mezes Hall and take a forty question chapter test on a computer. The computer would let you know if you passed the test and you would then move on to the next chapter and do the same thing over again until you passed the test for all thirty three chapters. There was no interaction between teacher and student and everything was done very quickly and cleanly, no embarrassing classroom questions to respond to, no quizzes, and no exams or papers. But I did not learn a damned thing: nothing was committed to long-term memory, which might be the only concept I remember.

In contrast, when I think of an undergraduate course that has stayed with me, that has shaped my thinking and my life, I think about a sophomore level Intellectual History course. The professor came into class wired with enthusiasm. This is not surprising, I once came across a stack of books piled high that he had used to prepare for class one day in the graduate library. It was a couple of feet high. This dude would walk from the library right to the classroom, wired with the connections he had just absorbed and give electric lectures. Our hands were up, we were on the edges of our seats, and they could not schedule a class after his because after class discussions would carry on far too long. The class was the most demanding and most exciting class I had as an undergraduate, we read Lovejoy’s, The Great Chain of Being, Burtt’s, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, Hazard’s, The European Mind, Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (both vols.), and Abrams’s, Natural Supernaturalism among many other books and articles and would feast on supplemental readings on reserve. Professor Zammito (now at Rice) became a model teacher and intellectual in my mind. For better or worse, I devoted myself to intellectual history, to history, and to becoming a history teacher in part in response to his exemplary scholarship and teaching. Little did I know that a kid named Dell was selling cheap computers out of his dorm room two floors below. He never made it to sophomore history: it turned out he had bigger plans.

When I was in high school, there were no computers, though a parent of a friend who worked at IBM nearby assured us all that something called personal computers would be in every home within ten years (1974). I loved my quirky expatriate teachers (I went to Stuttgart American High School) and loved to learn what they loved to teach. Our fallen Jesuit English teacher loved to teach us about Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume in Humanities class and my English teacher radared us in on a strange combo: Brecht and Camus. The point is that learning for me was about loving the way that my teachers loved what they were teaching.

Learning for me was about connecting with a human being. Learning was reflected in my ability to write something. I wanted to please my very demanding teachers, I wanted to conform to their expectations of excellence. I dreaded the conference to go over a paper that fell hopelessly below those standards, but respected my teachers for holding me to them.

I want my son to have teachers like I had, and I want the same for his kids. I do not want “the boys in the back room” telling me how my kid and grandkids should be educated. Sometimes the smartest people can’t think up the most important questions. Democracy requires citizens, and computers cannot produce citizens. Computers often mask deficits that we most need to develop. Data is not knowledge. We are in grave danger if we are tempted to believe that it is.

Dr. Seuss clued us in on this many years ago, “We will see. We will see.”

What do you think? Are we slouching towards Gatopia, with data driving us forward? Or will we heed the warnings and rescue humanity before it has all become digitized?

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.